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The Pain and the Itch

The Pain and the Itch reviewed in New York . . . By Elyse Sommer

Hey, I'm trying to remember. Remind me. When did you have that surgery. . .When they took out your sense of humor.--- Cash to his humorless and often somewhat hysterical brother Clay.

Jane Houdyshell & Ada-Marie L. Gutierrez.
Jane Houdyshell & Ada-Marie L. Gutierrez. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Horizons' first of the season Main Stage play, The Pain and the Itch, is not for devotees of happy endings with all the loose ends neatly tied up. On the face of it, this appears to be playwright Bruce Norris's version of a live sitcom about a dysfunctional upper middle class family.

But don't let the well appointed urban home of its Yuppie owners and their cliche stuffed dialogue fool you. This is a cannily constructed satire with a touch of mystery. The mystery revolves around an avocado oddly half eaten and an equally inexplicable rash afflicting the youngest family member. Could some evil, infection spreading creature have invaded this home with its up-to-date appliances and tasteful furnishings? Is Norris just sending up the smug liberal virtues that cover some not so liberal feelings, or are the problems within the walls of this home a metaphor for a much bigger social malaise?

The script dishes up plenty of laughs, but those laughts are from the school of darkest of black humor. The sitcomish setup has a desperate post 9/11 edge and there's a self-protective, skittishness about the actions of these people who are cocooned in their forward looking family values. (You know, the kind who pamper their kids and respond to even the most outlandish misbehavior with "a big time out.")

The play's main action revolves around a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Kelly (Mia Barron) a high-powered lawyer and the family breadwinner, and Clay (Christopher Evan Welsh, deliciously unsuccessful in proving himself to be more competent as stay-at-home dad than he did in a more conventional career). The guests include Carol, Clay's Mom (Jane Houdyshell at her usual best as a stock, PBS loving liberal with a bent for platitudes and a permanently turned off listening ear); Cash, Clay's doctor brother (Reg Rogers, a marvelously understated fountain of mean-spirited outspokenness); and Kalina (Aya Cash making an impressive Off-Broadway debut), Cash's young eastern-European refugee girlfriend who's not quite the dumb bimbo he takes her for. Cash's relationship with this young woman is almost as hostile as that of the brothers, whose feuding ways their mother explains with: "I told your father if he insisted on calling two boys Cassius and Clay that they were bound to fight." Kalina's descriptions of abuse suffered at the hands of soldiers in the war-torn country of her birth adds to the aura of evil waiting to strike.

There's yet another and very crucial visitor, Mr. Hadid (Peter J. Fernandez), an outsider with accent and attire to indicate that he's a Muslim. The reason and timing for his visit to Kelly and Clay's home is something of a puzzle that only becomes clear gradually for Norris tosses out information in dribs and drabs, bit by significant bit. In the opening scene Kelly and Clay seem to be consoling Hadid about the loss of his wife. The shift in focus to the Thanksgiving dinner is actually a flashback (note the snowflakes outside the kitchen window which stop during this transition to that dinner) and Kelly and Clay's recalling that day in November for the stranger appears to be an attempt to explain something that connects his tragedy and them.

The cleverness of the dramatic construct is that you somehow become so involved with the people gathered for this all American holiday that you tend to forget the questions raised by the presence of Mr. Hadid -- at least temporarily. The literal pain and itch of little Kayla's genital rash (neither Ada-Marie L. Guiterrez or Vivien Kells, who alternate this role have a problem about learning lines, as this is a silent part) and the discovery of the partially eaten avocado pump up the sense of menace and mystery permeating this household, as well as everyone's loony tendencies.

The flawless performances and direction help to let the teaspoon fed but always critically meaningful details add up gradually and entertainingly. And so, while I would be a spoiler to tell you the true facts about Hadid's presence and the mystery of the avocado and the itch, when they come out it's like having stones unexpectedly hurled through the window.

To restate my opening comment, this is not a play for those wanting neatly conclusive endings, preferably with at least a modicum of uplift. While Norris does eventually explain the genesis of Hadid's visit and little Kayla's rash, he doesn't give us a single really sympathetic character to identify with -- even the abused Kalina strains your sympathy with her expressions of cold-hearted bigotry towards the gypsies of her former home and Mr. Hadid isn't any more immune to the lure of the American Dream than any of the other characters.

As The Pain and the Itch has neither a happy or fully resolved ending, it also has no out and out villains or heroes. Neither is this darkly comic view of liberals stumped by the feelings of helpless anger and unease that has invaded their lives without pat, overcooked elements. However, as the self-absorbed but amusing kvetching and quarreling make you buy into Mr. Hadid's unexplained presence the stellar cast insures that all the consistently bad behavior is fun to watch.

Postscript: This play was nominated for the annual National Arts Club Kesselring Prize by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago where it was originally produced (and also directed by Anna D. Shapiro). It's been awardedan Honorable mention which comes with a $5,000 prize.

Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Cast: Jayne Houdyshell (Carol), Reg Rogers (Cash), Mia Barron (Kelly), Aya Cash (Kalina), Peter J. Fernandez (Mr. Hadid), Ada-Marie L. Guiterrez or Vivien Kells (Kayla), Christopher Evan Welsh (Clay).
Sets: Dan Ostling
Costumes: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lights: Donald Holder
Sound: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Playwrights Horizon, Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street). (212) 279-4200.
From 9/01/06 to 10/08/06--extended to 10/15; opening 9/21/06.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 17th matinee performance

The Pain and the Itch in London

by Lizzie Loveridge

The Pain and the Itch
Matthew Macfayden as Clay and Sara Stewart as Kelly
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
For his own directorial debut at the Royal Court, new Artistic Director Dominic Cooke has brought Bruce Norris' play The Pain and the Itch, which was world premiered by the amazingly talented Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2005 and which came to Off-Broadway in 2006. The play is a social comedy which mercilessly derides the attitudes of politically correct liberals by juxtaposing a family where Clay (Matthew Macfayden) is the house husband and Kelly (Sara Stewart) who holds down an executive legal job, with people from very different backgrounds. There is Mr Hadid (Abdi Gouhad), the mysterious Muslim figure and Clay's brother, Cash (Peter Sullivan) and his girlfriend Eastern European Kalina (Andrea Riseborough). Completing the cast are two different generations, Clay and Cash's Socialist Worker supporting mother, Carol (Amanda Boxer) and her three year old granddaughter Kayla (Shannon Kelly).

It is easy to laugh at parents who excessively thank their daughter for agreeing to switch off the television when they are entertaining company. "Thank you Sweetie. That's very nice of you. Very Polite. You're very thoughtful. Very considerate!" they purr, in an escalating competition with each other to reward their daughter with praise. Meanwhile Kayla is stomping off upstairs. How ridiculous we seem given the luxury of an affluent life style. There is Clay's insistence that he is not rich and a wonderful moment when Mr Hadid tells Clay that they could fix their deliberately distresssed antique table with sandpaper and some beeswax. There are Mr Hadid's searching questions as to the cost of everything which Clay and Kelly pretend not to know the answer to but we sense they are really embarrassed by how much they have paid, when judged by someone from the Third World. The little girl's pain and itch from her genital rash contrasts with the over protection of her parents banning her from using weapons or playing war games. Kalina uses her cosmetics to paint the face of the little girl in what she calls a sexy makeover which prompts Kelly to look strained and say, " Let's maybe not indoctrinate her into masculine objectification just yet". Carol will bend over backwards to make allowances for the underprivileged and those who are different while Kalina verbally attacks gypsies, blacks and Mexicans. Bruce Norris has an ear for these comic cultural collisions.

So at this level, The Pain and the Itch is a gentle, engaging comedy of manners. But does it have deeper comment to make? Mr Hadid's presence is slightly mysterious. Sometimes when he speaks, there is a dramatic lighting shift like a cut scene as if he is intervening, like a member of the watching audience, to ask a question, and a question through the eyes of a poor man from a different culture. The little girls' symptoms too are attention grabbing as they form the play's title and show us how this ostensibly cushioned and mollycoddled little girl has been exposed to disease.

The performances are impeccable. The delightfully whimsical Mathew Macfayden as Clay, his hapless innocence and vulnerability often rising to the surface as his mentally agile brother taunts him. Sara Stewart as Kelly convinces as the hard nosed lawyer, beautifully groomed, tight and determined. Amanda Boxer as Clay's mother is slightly dotty, quirky and so very well intentioned although her politics send her up mercilessly. Andrea Riseborough's tense refugee is brittle and frenetic and terribly outspoken. And then there is Peter Sullivan as Cash, the sardonic bystander and sibling rival to Clay. Mr Hadid remains in the background, waiting and watching until the final act. Acting honours too must go to the remarkable Shannon Kelly as the little girl who has an itch.

The set centres around the dining table in the living room of Clay and Kelly's house with its designer minimalism. The clothes and hair are perfect for each character, Clay's striped apron, Kalina's loud shirt and high heeled boots, Carol's vague style. They are some clever director's touches, glimpses of the family routines. Kelly hoovers the crumbs from the dining table after they have eaten followed by Clay with the spray polish and a cloth, all carried out with single minded efficiency like an unstoppable, household machine.

This is refreshing comedy with plenty to engage the intellect and an intriguing and exciting start at the Royal Court for Dominic Cooke. Elyse Sommer's review of the New York production follows these cast, design and venue notes for the London production:

Cast: Matthew Macfayden, Amanda Boxer, Sara Stewart; also Peter Sullivan, Abdi Gouhad, Shannon Kelly/Hannah Gunn/Angelica Trew, Andrea Riseborough,
Design: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Paul Arditti
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square) ©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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